By Shawn Chitnis
DENVER (CBS4)– The Bonfils-Stanton Foundation announced its Class of 2019 for the Livingston Fellowship Program, an opportunity for nonprofit leaders to grow personally and make their organizations more effective. For 13 years, select executives from various groups have become fellows improving the services provided across the state and helping each other prosper together.
“You bet on the jockey not on the horse, we were spending too much time on the horse and not the jockey,” said Gary Steuer, the president & CEO of the foundation.
Steuer says the foundation realized in 2005 there was a need to invest in not only philanthropic organizations but the leaders behind each of them. Named after Johnston Livingston, a former chairman of the board for the foundation, he wanted to see more done to develop leaders in the community.
“People who were already leaders still needed help being the best leader they could possibly be,” Steuer explained about the program. “The ultimate benefit is the public; the ultimate benefit would be the clients or the people the organization is trying to serve.”
But the money given each year, a grant of $25,000, is not for the organization. It is allocated to the leader specifically to improve their ability to manage a nonprofit and by extension better serve the community.
Since it began, there have been more than 70 fellows who have completed the program. Beyond the two years spent in the fellowship, graduates then become part of an alumni network that gives them access to others for advice or partnerships. Only five have left Colorado since becoming a fellow, a sign to Steuer that the program helps build a bond between these leaders and the state.
“These are our best and brightest, most accomplished leaders who are continually being recruited for great jobs outside of the community,” he said. “But they don’t want to leave the community.”
Sonya Ulibarri is the president and CEO of Girls Inc. of Metro Denver. A nonprofit focused on inspiring girls to be strong, smart, and bold. Started in 1983, it helps 2,400 girls in the city of Denver. She has served as the leader of the organization for seven years and made that transition into the top position while completing her fellowship. It’s one of around 80 affiliated groups across the country. Girls Inc. was started almost 155 years ago and helps 150,000 girls over its network. Programs in Denver are run out of its center on West Colfax and in partnership with 20 schools. The organization starts working with girls the summer after kindergarten and stays with them into the second year of college.
“I always knew I was drawn to community based work, that I really saw a career doing community work,” said Ulibarri. “Doing social change focused work, being around young people.”
Previously, she was the executive director of YouthBiz in Five Points and worked for another nonprofit before that. Graduating from college, she knew her interest was in communities of color and helping low income families. Ulibarri says she did not know if she belonged in the group of five fellows selected in 2010 but realized it would be great chance for her to grow as a leader. The fellowship taught her to be more confident and realize the impact she can have in that role.
“For me, the Livingston Fellowship Program as an individual has been the single most significant professional development, networking, and personal development opportunity I’ve had in my 20 years of nonprofit work,” she said.
Ulibarri says she learned how to program a nonprofit with a focus on gender. As the leader of Girls Inc., she looked for innovative programs and alternate revenue models to bring to the nonprofit. The chance to learn from other leaders also helped to launch a coffee shop. Strong Smart and Bold Beans gives girls the chance to learn about running a business and brings in money for the nonprofit.
“It’s become a really key part of Girls, Inc.’s work, it’s one that we know can grow,” she said.
The idea started as a cart in a library and then became the shop that is now located at the STEAM on the Platte complex in Denver’s Sun Valley neighborhood. Next spring they will add a mobile coffee truck to the business. Not only does the coffee shop build the brand of Girls Inc. but it also contributes to the local economy.
“There’s no way she would be in the leadership program with Girls Inc. were it not for the fellowship experience,” Steuer said of Ulibarri.
She now serves on the panel that helps to decide future fellows for the program. Ideal candidates have some position in leadership but show the potential to do more. Nominations are collected in the summer and then the finalists are announced in the fall.
“We also want people who have a hunger to learn and be better,” Steuer said. “We want people who recognize they can always grow, they can always be better.”
Ulibarri says the program is unique and a valuable resource for nonprofit leaders in Colorado. She believes it is changing the dynamic of a community of organizations not just in Denver but across the state. A motto that fellows are taught to adopt is that they are not just focused on success but significance as a leader.
“I don’t know of another resource like the Livingston Fellowship Program that exists in any other community across the country, we really have something unique in Colorado,” she said.